Quantcast

OUT OF NECESSITY: PRINCE, THE PRODUCER


In 1980 the studio in Prince Rogers Nelson’s Orono,
Minnesota, home did not at all resemble a recording facility fit for a future global megastar.

Upstairs, a 16-track analog Ampex MM-1100 was held together with baling wire; in the basement, a makeshift drum booth was protected by sandbags from occasional cesspool flooding. The only gear that could be considered state-of-the-art was his newly purchased Oberheim OB-X synthesizer.

This was a far cry from the 65,000-square-foot Paisley Park recording complex Prince would build in the fall of 1987 a mere 20 minutes or so from that rented dwelling. “It was a very low-tech studio with a few microphones,” recalls Robert “Bobby Z” Rivkin, drummer for Prince’s iconic backing band, The Revolution. “Prince used to duct-tape up the drums and cracked cymbals for a tight, compressed sound. Cords were running everywhere throughout the basement.”

It was inside this makeshift studio that the 22-year-old multi-instrumentalist emerged as a bold, genre-blending producer with his revelatory 1980 album, Dirty Mind.

Critics christened Prince’s soul-rock-funk hybrid the Minneapolis Sound, and the one-man-band compulsion of His Royal Badness established an archetype―the lone-wolf super-producer―that would inspire solo studio wizards like Teddy Riley, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and Timbaland.

Over the course of the decade, Prince became a towering figure, buoyed by classics like 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984), Parade (1986) and Sign o’ the Times (1987). But before imprinting his musical DNA on the ‘80s—selling some 150 million albums worldwide and winning multiple Grammys and an Oscar—he had to workshop his aural identity.

A Hohner Madcat guitar-wielding Prince was awash in inspiration, free to experiment thousands of miles from the watchful eye of label execs in California, where he’d largely recorded his first two albums, For You (1978) and Prince (1979).

The Twin Cities prodigy had soaked up the sounds of his idol, James Brown, as well as those of Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Funkadelic and Joni Mitchell. But now he had some new influences―from across the pond. “Dirty Mind was Prince recording his idea of a punk/new-wave album, as he was inspired by the scene and sounds happening in London in the early ’80s,” illuminates Bobby Z. (Though there was also ample space to jam in the critical darling’s raw, demo-like musical statements.)

At the same time, Prince flipped The Cars’ cold electro hooks into a synthesized come-on (“Dirty Mind”) and effortlessly jumped to jangly garage rock (“When You Were Mine”), on which our freaky hero sleeps in the same bed with not only his girlfriend but her male lover. On the anthemic “Uptown” and the funk strut of the X-rated “Head,” he used meaty keyboards in place of horns, eschewing years of Black-music tradition.

Prince had been obsessed with running the show, like his hero Stevie Wonder, since he was a 13-year-old playing in local bands. Many of his albums were emblazoned with the look-ma-no-hands tagline “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince.” But in a 1981 sit-down with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, he coyly downplayed his DIY modus operandi. “It’s simple,” he explained when asked why he insisted on maintaining such control in the studio. “When I did the first record, I didn’t have a band, so I had to do it myself out of necessity.”

From the start, Prince lived and breathed artistic empowerment. “He was a huge inspiration,” declared celebrated producer Pharrell Williams on his OTHERtone podcast days after Prince’s death at age 57 on April 21, 2016. “Many songs of mine are like the children of his songs.” This kind of glowing sentiment has been echoed by a range of visionaries who saw Prince as a North Star, including former protégés Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and such luminaries as Missy Elliott, Max Martin, Mark Ronson and gifted contemporary oddball Steve Lacy.

But when a 19-year-old Prince signed his recording deal with Warner Bros. in 1977, the suits balked at his brazen demand that he produce alone. This was not standard industry practice, even for superstars. Mo Ostin, then CEO of Warner Bros., set up a studio audition to see if Prince was, in fact, capable of producing his own material. He passed the test, but there was a condition: Prince would lay down the songs for what would be his debut at the 24-track Record Plant in Sausalito, California, under the loose supervision of executive producer Tommy Vicari.

It was a long and grinding process. “Prince told me the label felt younger artists weren’t supposed to produce their own music,” confirms Cynthia Horner, CEO and editor-in-chief of Right On!, who afforded the newcomer his first national interview. “He had a problem with that. Warner Bros. believed Maurice White, who founded Earth, Wind & Fire, was who Prince should be working with for his debut. But the thing about Prince is that musically, he had nothing in common with Maurice. He respected what Earth, Wind & Fire represented, but Prince had a different type of creative spirit. Nobody was doing what he was doing.”

For You ultimately played it safe, but Prince hinted at what was to come with the quirky dance-floor double entendre “Soft and Wet” (which hit #12 on the Hot Soul Singles chart). “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (#11 on the pop chart) followed in 1979, giving audiences a glimpse of his hit-making prowess. By the early ’80s, however, young Mr. Nelson’s studio acumen had grown exponentially. Prince, the producer, was shaking up the R&B scene.

He’d conceived The Time as a vehicle for future soul headliner Alexander O’Neal before recruiting his charismatic boyhood bandmate and drummer Morris Day as frontman. As far back as the Ohio Players’ groundbreaking 1973 single “Funky Worm,” funk outfits had been experimenting with synthesizers. Yet The Time’s eponymous 1981 gold debut, with its squiggly synth grooves, guitar freakouts and nonstop backbeat, was a shock to the system. And it was no surprise that on record, the “band” consisted of Prince on nearly every instrument and backup vocals; Day lent lead vocals.

Almost overnight, stripped down, keyboard-dominated jams like “Get It Up,” “Cool” and “The Stick”—all clocking in at a robust seven-to-10 minutes or more—made the 12-piece band obsolete. Such funk giants as George Clinton and his P-Funk crew, Rick James, Cameo and the Bar-Kays followed suit.

Prince pushed his futurist arrangements even further in 1981 with the Linn LM-1 drum machine on the Controversy deep cut “Private Joy.” Musically, it was as if he’d birthed the theory of relativity.

During his storied, early ’80s recording sessions at Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound Recorders, rim shots and handclaps were meticulously detuned. Kick drums were reverbed and snares overdubbed. Prince also used his shiny new toy on The Time’s revolutionary “777-9311” (#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) and Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl” (#7 R&B/Hip-Hop). His trademark sound had fully arrived.

While other acts simply programmed straight-ahead rhythms on the LM-1, tech nerd Prince—who up until then had mainly played traditional drums on his records—replayed the Linn presets, running his computerized beats through a Boss guitar pedal to create manipulated tones.

By the time he dove into his landmark, MTV-certified, quadruple-platinum 1999, Prince had ditched live percussion altogether, making the LM-1 the heartbeat of his adventurous production. In a 2016 Rolling Stone tribute to Prince, Questlove lauded the Purple One’s electronic-beatbox breakthroughs. “[1982] was such a banner year for the use of drum machines,” he wrote. “Prince’s programming work on 1999 was beyond anything I had ever heard, just as innovative as the best hip-hop producers in the years to come: the Bomb Squad, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla.”

Prince’s pop peers took note as the Minneapolis Sound blanketed radio. Stevie Nicks invited the virtuoso to play keyboards on her 1983 single “Stand Back” and offered to split the royalties after being inspired by the synthesized melody of his seminal “Little Red Corvette” (#6). Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” (1985) was a brazen nick of Prince’s quintessential party anthem “1999” (#12).

Inevitably, imitators proliferated. Ready for the World’s 1985 pop-chart topper “Oh Sheila” was such compelling ersatz Prince that gold-minted protege Sheila E reportedly asked him if the Flint, Michigan, band was yet another act from his stable. Zapp leader and solo artist Roger Troutman more tastefully nodded to Prince’s 1979 fan favorite “Sexy Dancer” with the 1985 funk gem “Itchin’ for Your Twitchin’.” For his part, George Michael dismissed his own controversial 1987 single “I Want Your Sex” as “bad Prince” in a 2008 Los Angeles Times interview.

By then, the fearless producer―who’d defied the musical gods by removing the bass line from 1984’s global monster “When Doves Cry” (which Purple-reigned at #1 on the pop chart for five weeks)―had already moved on. In 1987 Prince augmented the Linn LM-1 drums with live horns and the Fairlight CMI sampling synthesizer. The cutting-edge keyboard (price: $40,000) fueled his bluesy, socially sobering “Sign o’ the Times,” the title cut to his 1987 album (the single peaked at #3).

Looking back, it’s no wonder Prince’s over-the-top rock-star persona and guitar-hero pedigree at times overshadowed his pioneering legacy as a producer. But there were few hitmakers with the range to transform girl-next-door Sheena Easton into a ravenous sex bomb, as he did with 1984’s “Sugar Walls” (#9), go toe-to-toe with Patti LaBelle’s soul-stirring wail on the 1989 foot-stomper “Yo Mister” (#6 R&B/Hip-Hop) or conjure the 1990 bubblegum New Jack Swing sing-along “Round and Round” (#12) for 14-year-old Tevin Campbell.

Even as Prince found himself increasingly drowned out by hip-hop, he wasn’t afraid to expand his production palette into the burgeoning genre. He launched his 1991 comeback album, Diamonds and Pearls—ultimately quintuple platinum—with the rap-fueled single “Gett Off” (#6 R&B/Hip-Hop). What sounded like sampled drums lifted from a Public Enemy joint was really live playing by Michael Bland, a member of Prince’s New Power Generation. It was a calculated move. “Everybody else went out and got drum machines and computers, so I threw mine away,” Prince quipped in a 1991 SPIN cover story.

But Prince’s drum-machine-free edict wouldn’t last; along with traditional instrumentation by the NPG and an expanded horn section, he used a sampled loop of Lowell Fulson’s 1967 soul romp “Tramp” for his 1992 psychedelic spiritual “7” (#7). By the time Prince hit the stage the following year for the Act I Tour, he was including the hip-hop production technique in his live show.

“Prince wanted to run the loops through a live drummer,” says Morris Hayes, former keyboardist and musical director for the NPG. “He instructed Michael Bland to use a foot trigger to start and stop these loops because Prince didn’t like to play with sequencers. That way he could vibe on a song when he wanted to.”

Over the subsequent years, Prince leapt among acoustic production, keyboard-enhanced grooves, samples and his beloved LM-1 for his varied musical explorations. He never lost the drive to use the studio tools at his disposal to create something new.

More than two decades into the 21st century, Prince’s influence as a studio giant remains undeniable, his recording innovations continuing to reverberate and inspire.

On the 2015 track “Free Urself,” the last song he released during his lifetime, Prince returned to the early ’80s roots of the Minneapolis Sound. “Free yourself. And save a place for me,” he sings over a synth-heavy, new-wave groove. He needn’t have worried—his place, as ever, is assured.

NEAR TRUTHS:
DESERT SONG
Give I.B. a bottle of water. (4/12a)
AARON BAY-SCHUCK AND TOM CORSON: THE HITS INTERVIEW (PART ONE)
Bunny's hoppin' again. (4/12a)
COACHELLA: SETS TO SEE AND PLACES TO BE
Your desert deets are here. (4/12a)
SONG REVENUE: SONY
HITS FAST FORWARD
Walkin' tall in vintage fashion (4/12a)
THE COUNT: SUPERSTARS TO SURPRISE AT COACHELLA?
The latest tidbits from the vibrant live sector (4/12a)
THE NEW UMG
Gosh, we hope there are more press releases.
TIKTOK BANNED!
Unless the Senate manages to make this whole thing go away, that is.
THE NEW HUGE COUNTRY ACT
No, not that one.
TRUMP'S CAMPAIGN PLAYLIST
Now 100% unlicensed!
 Email

 First Name

 Last Name

 Company

 Country
CAPTCHA code
Captcha: (type the characters above)